(March 9, 2023)—I’ve been thinking about the power of words, especially those pertaining to petroglyphs and pictographs, for quite some time. With the annual meeting of the American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA) taking place in Tucson this weekend, I felt the time was ripe—and maybe right, we’ll see—to elaborate on why I’ve come to avoid the term “rock art.”
Buckle up; we have some rocky terrain to cover.
Some Personal History to Set the Stage…
When I began my doctoral research project a while back, I was relatively unversed in the study of petroglyphs and pictographs. I’d seen examples, of course, and even encountered and documented a few during my years in cultural resource management prior to starting graduate school. But I knew little to nothing about the subject in terms of methodology, analysis, and interpretation. All I really knew was that nearly everyone called it “rock art.”
During my first semester at Washington State University, I actually pitched the idea of doing my master’s project on a very captivating pictograph panel I’d helped document in the rugged, remote Manzano Mountains National Forest southeast of Albuquerque the year before.
That idea hit the graduate-student advisor like a rockfall. Apparently, such “art” was incompatible with “science,” so I instead took up palynology and helped develop a low-frequency paleoclimate reconstruction for the Four Corners region in association with the Village Ecodynamics Project (thank you, Dr. Kohler). Lab coat, test tubes, fume hood, centrifuge, pipettes, microscope, hard data…
I loved that work, and I had every intention of continuing with it through a doctoral program. I’d been presented with the possibility of studying the pollen and pathogen profiles of coprolites—desiccated poop—recovered from caches in rock shelters in Utah. I was excited.
Then things changed. During my fourth and final semester, a committee member brought to my attention a notice of funding for a Preservation Fellowship with the Center for Desert Archaeology (now Archaeology Southwest) in Tucson. The fellowship offered four years of financial support for a PhD student to complete a dissertation on the petroglyphs at South Mountain Park in Phoenix in collaboration with the City of Phoenix and Arizona State University. This committee member knew I had an interest in petroglyphs and thought it might be a good fit.
I applied, interviewed, and was eventually awarded the fellowship. Goodbye palynology; hello petroglyphs!
At that early stage in my career, I didn’t fully understand that Americanist archaeology has an uneasy history and uncomfortable relationship with petroglyphs and pictographs. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that some archaeologists, past and present, have outright disdain for the subject. I’ve come to grasp this in hindsight, but let’s get back to grad school…
With external funding secured, my committee seemed to welcome this change in my research emphasis. But then I found myself facing a different challenge: I had no academic background in petroglyph research, nor did any of my professors. A survey of the scholarly landscape showed that the general absence of professional archaeological scholarship on the subject was due, in large part, to the lack of professors and fellow students who studied it across the country.
Sadly, it is still that way today.
Against “Art”? Encountering Critiques
Needing to chart my own path, then, I began by reading everything I could on petroglyphs and pictographs. One of the first books I turned to was a fairly fresh The Archaeology of Rock-Art. This volume had a simple yet powerful title, and in terms of social theory, the Brits had been running circles around Americans for a few decades. This book was full of examples of that.
Theory aside, in reading the volume’s introduction, I encountered a cogent critique of the term “rock art.” Although I’m sure people in the field had been debating this term for years, if not decades, I’m under the impression that the dialogue centered primarily on what to include under this umbrella. Should cupules, amorphous pecks and scratches, and even ground figures be lumped with pictographs and petroglyphs?
But the editors’ critique was deeper, more meaningful, and harder to answer. At issue was whether petroglyphs and pictographs were actually art, in the western worldview, or something more essential to the life of the “artists.” Lacking a suitable alternative, however, the editors retained the term, but set it as something aside from either rock or art by hyphenating it: “rock-art.” A portmanteau, as they called it. This hyphenated form evidently didn’t sway many researchers, and its use seems to have all but faded in just a few years. The last place I found it was in The Figured Landscapes of Rock-Art, a companion volume that hit bookshelves the same year I enrolled in graduate school.
Shortly after completing my dissertation, in which I was quite comfortable with “rock art,” I had the opportunity to review the second edition of Introduction to Rock Art Research. Here, in the introductory chapter, a critical consideration of the appropriateness of “rock art” popped up again. This time, however, the author defended the status quo. They argued that, as an archaeologist, they were concerned with preserving the past, including perpetuating archaeological terminology and traditions unless they could be shown to be inaccurate or harmful—put a pin in that! They also opined that by calling Indigenous petroglyphs and pictographs something other than art somehow other-izes the makers and casts their work as something less than Western art.
The latter argument seemed like a straw man to me. I am unaware of any credible contemporary scholars suggesting non-Western, Indigenous persons lack a capacity or aptitude for art. Although such racist sentiments do color the discipline’s troubled past, I would be shocked—but maybe not surprised—to hear something similar today.
Most recently, in reviewing The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art, I encountered a thorough and well-thought-out commentary on the problem in a chapter entitled “Rock Art and Aesthetics.” The author explained that whether petroglyphs and pictographs should be considered art is an empirical matter relating to aesthetics. They concluded that, despite why people made such imagery, “rock art” is appropriate if the imagery affects us in ways art does. Do we respond emotionally, sensorily, or intellectually when presented with it?
This aesthetic argument surfaced in a recent discussion I had with a very experienced “rock art researcher,” someone I esteem and consider an elder statesperson for research on Southwestern petroglyphs and pictographs. I was attempting to explain why I don’t call it “rock art”—I know, I’m getting there—and they replied, “Well, it is art because it follows everything I know art to be.” This person is a retired art educator, so OK. And I can’t deny that petroglyphs and pictographs affect my sensibilities; they delight me intellectually, and their disrespect and mistreatment pain me.
But that doesn’t mean I need to think of them as art, and I’m certainly not comfortable talking about them as art, and this is why.
Meanings beyond Aesthetics
Since completing my dissertation, which I wrote with very little insight from descendant communities, I’ve come to approach archaeology not simply with a concern for the past, per se, but from a commitment to the present and future. What I mean is that, as an anthropologist, I’m interested in the nexus between these materials and contemporary people, and how to secure a future where this nexus abides and is strengthened.
In talking and working with Tribal elders and advisors, I’ve seen how petroglyphs and pictographs move them, sometimes in strong and—to me at least—surprising ways. Emotional responses are common. And some have told me plainly these images are not art; they were not made simply to make us feel a particular way.
I’m fortunate to have been educated that these are messages from the ancestors, who intended to convey vital cultural and spiritual information to their descendants. Some advisors have also shared that the images themselves materialize a spiritual energy that can heal or harm. To see and visit them safely and respectfully requires a certain kind of mindset and approach. These understandings go beyond aesthetics.
Given the power of this imagery—which is not apparent to the casual observer, let alone a novice archaeologist—I’ve since grown uncomfortable with the term “rock art,” hyphenated or not.
In working with several Tribes in developing an updated brochure for the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, I shared with one advisor that I was having trouble finding an appropriate term. “What should we call it?” I asked. They responded directly: “It’s not art. Call it what it is. Petroglyphs and pictographs.”
Such a simple yet insightful reply. Rather than debate a theory of art, or create some sort of new word or portmanteau, they conveyed that the preferred and appropriate terminology should be value-free, non-interpretive, and technically accurate.
Seems reasonable to me.
I’ve never had a Tribal advisor tell me outright that “rock art” is inappropriate. I only learned it by clearly and respectfully asking them. I believe this is where some of the debate I outlined above has fallen short. It has most often been Euro-American academics and avocationalists quibbling. I have never read that their positions were informed by consultation or collaboration with descendant communities. (If they had been, such discussions were not made known.)
But my experience is not novel, and my descendant-community advisors’ positions are not unique. From what I can tell, the notion that “rock art” is an inaccurate term is widely shared among Indigenous communities. And don’t simply take my word for it—ask some Tribal elders, or read their statements, such as the one shared by Elizabeth Paige, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla community in southern California in a recent article in Inland Empire Magazine (page 33).
First Do No Harm
But is “rock art” an inappropriate term for people who may not share that cultural connection or spiritual affinity to the imagery? That’s for them to decide. I know people who have the utmost respect for the imagery, and understand that it is more than a decorative medium, but who still call it “rock art.” I have even heard some members of descendant communities call it such, although I did not get the sense that they viewed it that way. I know other Indigenous persons who are offended by the term, which brings me back to the pin I placed above.
We can continue the semantic and theoretical debates as to whether or not “rock art” is an accurate term, but it is clear—to me at least—that it can be a harmful term.
Knowing that Indigenous communities see this imagery as something essential to their well-being, and knowing that they believe “art” is not the appropriate term, continuing to call it “rock art” would be an offense to them. Applying my values and sensibility to someone else’s heritage would be a mode of cultural appropriation, as the author of Rock Art and Aesthetics accedes. Moreover, it is undeniable that cultural appropriation can be harmful.
That author goes further in asking whether it is appropriation if no one is being harmed. This might apply if someone were talking about Paleolithic cave paintings, but I live and work in the Southwest. I now know that appropriating the region’s petroglyphs and pictographs would be insulting and harmful to the dozens of Tribes who have lived here since time immemorial.
As I continue to work with Tribes, my perspectives and positions will naturally change, and I humbly welcome that growth and understanding. For now, I have settled on “rock imagery,” a term and concept I borrowed from Utah’s State Historic Preservation Office. They’ve clearly been thinking along the same lines. It’s not perfect, but neither are the alternatives.
Given all this, I was a bit taken aback when I wrote “rock imagery” in a piece promoting this weekend’s ARARA conference in Tucson and one of the organization’s Board members said, “I know that rock imagery is the latest fad, but as long as we are the American Rock Art Research Association we should call it rock art.”
I get it. I do. But I also don’t think it’s a fad. And I’m willing to set aside archaeological tradition out of respect for the Tribes who have helped me change my thinking and consider my words wisely. Words are powerful. As professionals, we must be cognizant of how we speak about the past because it can have harmful impacts on people today.
I encourage my archaeological and anthropological colleagues to engage the descendant communities in their areas of study with an open mind and a concerted effort to listen and learn. Simple shifts in nomenclature can show respect and build trust—qualities we all know the discipline has long been lacking.